30 years ago Bulgaria was first in the world to recognize the independence of North Macedonia
On January 15, 1992, Bulgaria was the first in the world to recognize the independence of today’s Republic of North Macedonia. Back then, the First Deputy Foreign Minister was Stefan Tafrov. In an interview with BTA, he explained how the state institutions in Bulgaria came to this decision.
- Mr. Tafrov, 30 years later it seems quite normal and natural that on January 15, 1992, Bulgaria was the first to unconditionally recognize the independent Republic of Macedonia. However, if we put the situation in the context of the events of that time, questions begin to be asked about this two-day, and maybe longer meeting of the Council of Ministers, which discussed whether Bulgaria should be the first to take this step and in what way. Let's start from there.
- Let us first outline the international parameters of the situation, and they were that four Yugoslav republics - Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia had held referendums in which the supporters of independence had won. Even before the European community, when there was no EU at the time, the question of recognizing these four republics was raised, as the break-up of Yugoslavia seemed inevitable, although until recently there were European attempts to keep Yugoslavia whole for a while. But these referendums have shown that this is impossible. And in countries like Germany and Austria, public opinion was very strong in favor of Slovenia and Croatia, countries with which the Austrians and Germans had historical ties, economic, etc. And in this sense, Macedonia and Bosnia fell into a gray area. There was an aggressive, highly nationalist regime in Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic, who, as we know, started the war in the former Yugoslavia, attacked Slovenia first, then Croatia, but it was not known what that regime would do in the south - Macedonia, where the Yugoslav army controlled by the Serbian government and Milosevic remained present.
At that moment, Bulgaria was just coming out of a very difficult period, after ‘Lukanov's winter’, after the victory of the Union of Democratic Forces(SDS) and the establishment of the government of Filip Dimitrov. There were also presidential elections, practically the recognition of Macedonia took place between the two rounds of the presidential elections, in which the SDS candidate was Zhelyu Zhelev. This further complicated the situation. There were divisions within SDS. Wings were already clearly visible. There was a wing that opposed Filip Dimitrov, it was supported by Ahmed Dogan (Support from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) was absolutely necessary for the government of Filip Dimitrov to remain in power and Ahmed Dogan worked with figures such as then Foreign Minister Stoyan Ganev, economist Ventsislav Dimitrov and Georgi Markov, they were three very close friends and they were very opposed to Filip Dimitrov - that was the context.)
I was then the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the request of Filip Dimitrov and Zhelyu Zhelev (I am his former adviser on international affairs), who were worried about the fact that the then Foreign Minister Stoyan Ganev had no foreign policy experience. including little knowledge of English, and worried about what might happen if a completely inexperienced man headed the ministry, as happened because of these internal coalition balances. So that was my role. And Stoyan Ganev was constantly traveling at the beginning of his term and at the time of the recognition of Macedonia he had not been in Bulgaria for a long time and in fact, I, as number two in the ministry, acted as foreign minister and I had the responsibility to develop the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this issue.
- And what happened? Long meeting of the Council of Ministers - two or three days...
- First of all, I must tell you that Filip Dimitrov and Zhelyu Zhelev and I clarified that Bulgaria must help Macedonia get out of this gray area. To give a clear signal to Milosevic that he cannot invade Macedonia, he cannot try to undertake any military adventure, shed blood, and also send a message to the citizens of Macedonia that Bulgaria is not an enemy. Because these events come after decades of very consistent, strong, reckless anti-Bulgarian propaganda both during royal Yugoslavia and then, during Tito's Yugoslavia. Generations in the Republic of Macedonia had grown up believing that Bulgaria was an enemy. Bulgaria had to give a strong signal to our brothers in the Republic of Macedonia that we are not enemies, namely brothers.
- At the same time to send a signal to European countries (the EU didn’t exist), at the same time to protect itself from the dangers that may be exaggerated, but still exist...
- Exactly. What I did not elaborate on, outlining the international parameters of the situation, is the fact that at the time (the Yugoslav wars began then) there was speculation around the world, especially in the West, that this was the beginning of a new Balkan war as historically the Balkans are Europe's ‘gunpowder cellar‘... In addition, there was a very strong campaign in Greece against the name of Macedonia, there were thousands of rallies in which the Greeks protested against this name, and Greece was a very important partner of Bulgaria, it was the only member of both the European Community and NATO, so it further complicated the situation for Bulgaria. But there was speculation that a new Balkan war would break out and, you see, Bulgaria would try to take Macedonia by force, occupy it almost, and to some extent become part of the problem. Because Greece had become part of the problem, though not by military means. They stopped Macedonia's independence, opposed its recognition by the European community. Greece actively worked against it. And that was the challenge for us - a country in a very difficult economic situation, just coming out of communism. Bulgaria was poor, physically isolated from the rest of Europe, and Sofia is 50 km away from the Serbian border. We did not know what Milosevic would do, even against Bulgaria. We were not members of anything, we were, so to speak, for ourselves. We had the sympathy of the West because we had a democratic revolution and the victory of the Union of Democratic Forces in the parliamentary elections, President Zhelev was well received in the West, but these were our only trump cards. And we had to give evidence that we have a pro-European orientation, we do not want a new Balkan war, we want to open the European perspective to all Balkan countries, including ourselves.
- Pro-European orientation, with the recognition of the independent Republic of Macedonia, when European countries were in fact silent...
- The situation was as follows: Germany and Austria insisted and their priority was the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. In other countries, there have long been attempts to preserve the former Yugoslavia as such. At one point, they realized that this was not possible, but they were still skeptical about the rapid recognition of the former Yugoslav republics, so they decided to entrust a commission, the so-called arbitration commission chaired by the then chairman of the French Constitutional Court, Robert Badinter (a very large figure, as a minister in Mitterrand's government he pushed for the abolition of the death penalty in France). Badinter often came to Bulgaria, he knew Zhelyu Zhelev well, I, as Dr. Zhelev's advisor, also knew him well, so we were lucky that Badinter was chairman of this commission and we were anxious what it would decide.
This commission decided, and this was the crucial moment in the recognition, that it recommended that the Member States of the European Community recognize two republics. And these were not Slovenia and Croatia, but Slovenia and Macedonia. This was the strongest support for Bulgaria's desire to reach out to Macedonia, to avoid the spread of war in the southern direction, to Macedonia and thus protect Bulgaria from a difficult situation (the war would literally come to our door). Besides, the fate of our brothers in the Republic of Macedonia worried us, we did not want them to suffer. So, the fact that Badinter had a connection with Bulgaria helped. He came to help draft the new Constitution, and I remember that long before these events, in the autumn of 1991, I was with him at a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris for the Balkans. At the time, this was the focus of global interest. And then we traveled together for another important conference. While we were waiting for the plane, he asked me about Macedonia and I gave him an abbreviated course, historically quite objective, on the Macedonian issue. Ignorance of the topic was one of the reasons for this uncertainty on the part of our Western partners. They were confused about this complex Balkan issue and, imagine, the complex Macedonian issue was falling ‘from the sky’ and they had to learn a lot in a very short time. So, I dare say that I helped him to some extent in this difficult situation. I do not attribute, of course, any merit, but this is an interesting detail.
- What happened on this date - January 15?
- The moment when the decision had to be made by Bulgaria was January 15, 1992, because then, during the Portuguese Presidency, the foreign ministers of the European Community had to decide which former Yugoslav republics to recognize. The expectation was that Slovenia and Croatia would be recognized, but not Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to the Greek veto.
- However, the Badinter Commission said YES to Macedonia. And how did Bulgaria turn out to be the first country to recognize the independent Republic of Macedonia? This decision was announced literally in the evening at the meeting of the National Assembly.
- During the meeting of the Council of Ministers, let me say again, Stoyan Ganev was not there. He was in Germany, on some undiplomatic occasion, if I'm not mistaken at a fair. But Greece interprets this as an attempt to persuade Bulgaria to recognize Macedonia as well. And this provoked a sharp position of Greece towards Germany. They literally threatened that if Germany recognized Macedonia, they would veto the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. So this presence of Stoyan Ganev there was counterproductive to our interests, and he sent a letter from Bonn saying that he had met with the German Foreign Minister and Hans-Dietrich Genscher appealed to us not to recognize Macedonia because he feared Greece would veto Slovenia and Croatia, which would be very difficult from the point of view of German public opinion towards the government. And I remember how when I presented the letter, during these three days of discussions in the Council of Ministers, the then Minister of Finance Ivan Kostov said: This is the opinion of the German Foreign Minister. And what is the opinion of the Bulgarian Foreign Minister? And I said: The position of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry is that we must recognize Macedonia.
Later, Stoyan Ganev accused me of not reading his gram. Nothing like that, I introduced the Council of Ministers to this gram most properly.
The other interesting episode was a ciphertext sent by our ambassador in Belgrade at the time - Marko Markov, a man dedicated to the Macedonian issue, in which there was an emotional appeal - to recognize Macedonia because if we don’t, history will never forgive us. It literally said ‘you are new statesmen, this responsibility falls on your shoulders, history will not forgive you if you miss it’.
It was not a question of recognizing Macedonia at all, there was a consensus on that, it was a question of recognizing it first.
And here is the moment to emphasize: The historical merit for the fact that Bulgaria was the first in the world to recognize Macedonia belongs to the then Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov. Since under the Constitution the government has the right to recognize new states, it did not need a parliament or a president. Yes, President Zhelev gave political support to this decision of the government. During these almost three-day government meetings, a National Security Council was held in the presidency, at which then-Vice President Atanas Semerdjiev opposed early recognition of Macedonia. And that was a problem. He was still a member of the opposition. But President Zhelev recorded an address to the nation, which was broadcast.
Stoyan Ganev's absence from the cabinet meeting was also a problem, as there were fears that it would provoke a strong clash between opponents and supporters of Macedonia's swift recognition. And this was the great merit of Filip Dimitrov that he managed to achieve this, the Council of Ministers to give him the power to choose the moment for recognition. And at the moment when the ministers left, he told the then government spokeswoman Nadezhda Mihaylova (Neynsky): ‘Nade, go to the television station (there was only one TV station at the time) to announce that we recognize Macedonia, and I am going to the Parliament with Stefan (Tafrov) to announce it.’ This is one of the most wonderful moments in my life! When the Prime Minister entered the Parliament, he recently recalled that there were votes, including from SDS. ‘Where are you going? Wait for Stoyan Ganev’, but he took the floor and said that the Republic of Bulgaria recognizes the republics of Slovenia, and said bluntly - Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Union of Democratic Forces got to its feet and started shouting ‘Bravo!’ The Bulgarian Socialist Party did not know how to react, but I remember well how the BSP MP Filip Bokov came out and quite aptly asked: ‘Where is your foreign minister, Mr. Prime Minister? Why isn't he here?’
This is a very strong emotional memory for me and for all of us. When we went out in the corridors, some SDS members were worried that Stoyan Ganev was not there, but in general, it was euphoria.
- How was this received in Macedonia? Did you have any feedback? I will tell you my personal emotion from the first days after Bulgaria recognized the independence of the Republic of Macedonia - I was there and this was the only case in which strangers hugged me on the streets because I am Bulgarian.
- There was no internet then, but as far as I understand the official media had tried to crush the news. It was about the fifth piece of news. We were generally a little disappointed by the reaction of officials in Skopje, who felt uncomfortable with Bulgaria defending them at the moment. But I remember a story of the late Dosta Dimovska. She came then as a poet, together with Lyubcho Georgievski, at the invitation of the late Blaga Dimitrova. She told me how she watched with her mother or aunt, I don’t remember, the news and when they heard that Bulgaria recognizes the Republic of Macedonia, her mother said: ‘Dosta, Dpsta, do you see? Mother Bulgaria...’
- And after that followed years in which the second step was almost not taken. Somehow, our relationship was slowly pulling back till we reach present day when our relationship is close to freezing.
- Yes, unfortunately. To end this story - the same evening Stoyan Ganev returned from abroad, raised a scandal in the office of the Prime Minister and demanded my resignation. Filip Dimitrov refused, Zhelyu Zhelev defended me, but I decided that I could not cause a crisis in the majority. The situation in which Bulgaria found itself was very complicated and SDS had just come to power and I left my post as deputy minister, I became an ambassador to Italy, so I did not take part in these processes. And, unfortunately, you are right, Bulgaria missed many chances. But, of course, there were many bright moments in the Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. When Greece imposed a blockade on Macedonia, it was Bulgaria that became the country that did not allow the blockade to be complete - instead of Thessaloniki, the nearest port for Macedonia became Burgas. During the Kosovo crisis, in our country the Prime Minister was Ivan Kostov, in Macedonia - Lyubcho Georgievski, relations were very close and Bulgaria helped Macedonia in every way. These are very serious moments in our relations, which showed that Bulgaria cares for its neighbors, cares for its brothers. As a diplomat, I can tell you that in all international forums Bulgaria has consistently provided diplomatic support to the new Macedonian state. I have twice been ambassador to the UN, incl. and in the UN Security Council and we have always, in every way and in everything, supported Macedonia. But the biggest omission is that economically, infrastructural Bulgaria has done nothing.
- Which Greece did, despite blocking Macedonia because of its name, and forcing the use of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
- Yes, what Greece did. In the field of culture - only recently you can watch Bulgarian television in Macedonia, for a long time there was no access to Bulgarian newspapers. This is something we did not do properly.
As we speak on the 30th anniversary of the recognition, one detail that seems important to me. Why did Bulgaria, in addition to Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia, also recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina? It is important to know because our position is principled - when a country has decided to be independent, it is its right, according to the UN Charter. But the other reason is that it has encouraged Turkey to recognize Macedonia as well.
In fact, it was prepared. We were confident that when Bulgaria recognizes Macedonia, we will not be alone in the Balkans for long, and Turkey will at one point recognize all four republics. This coordination took place during one of my meetings with the Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria Yilcan Oral, he came to me to ask Bulgaria to recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina. I told him that we have no objections in principle since they have decided to be independent, but I asked him what Turkey will do for Macedonia, will it recognize it? His answer was: Why not. The then Turkish Prime Minister Demirel had a visit to Belgrade and a meeting with Milosevic, and there was no way the recognition could take place before that visit. But 20 days later, they recognized all four republics.
And what is symbolic about other countries in the European community outside Greece - Philip Dimitrov often tells it - that the then British Ambassador Richard Thomas - a brilliant diplomat, had told Philip Dimitrov: ‘If you recognize Macedonia, we, of course, cannot we support you. But if you do not recognize it - we will not understand you.’
So, in fact, it was important for us not to stay isolated. Through informal channels, however, we were confident that this would not harm Bulgaria's long-term interests. And so it turned out - this helped Bulgaria to become part of the solutions in the Balkans, not the problems, and this helped us today to be members of NATO and the EU.
- What is important to do now to get out of this freezing point of our bilateral relations? Two new governments in both countries, but a situation where everyone has drawn red lines. And as communication - extremely sharp speech not only on social networks.
- That worries me, too. There is a hatred that reigns. It has long been deliberately generated in Macedonia precisely by those circles that are connected with the past, who want to build their country on an anti-Bulgarian basis. Bulgaria's strategic interest is that this country is not built and does not develop on an anti-Bulgarian basis, on the basis of hatred of Bulgaria and everything Bulgarian. And our other strategic interest is not to forget about those citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia who have Bulgarian identity. They are especially dear to us. They, despite all the vicissitudes of history, have retained their Bulgarian consciousness and we have no right to abandon them. So in this situation, we must get clear evidence from the Macedonian side that they are ready to go their own way and assure us that their statehood will not be built on anti-Bulgarian grounds and will not violate the rights of Macedonian citizens with Bulgarian consciousness These arguments of theirs, which I hear lately, that there are no claims and complaints against the authorities for persecution, because of the Bulgarian ethnic identity ... this is ridiculous. It is natural that when you have an overall climate of suppression of pro-Bulgarian feelings, it is very expensive for a citizen to make such requests and complaints to the Commission on Discrimination or other bodies, be they international. So the lack of requests and complaints cannot be a criterion for whether there are such people. There are such people and they must be respected, and ultimately the EU is a community in which respect for human rights is a fundamental principle. On the other hand, I am starting to worry that some negative feelings are starting to arise in Bulgaria as well, forgetting that on the other side of the border are our brothers and we wish them well. If you ask every Bulgarian, it becomes clear that we wish them well and everyone sees that the accession of the Republic of North Macedonia to the EU will help Bulgaria as well. There will be a more stable and prosperous country on our borders, and on the other hand, this would thwart the plans of non-EU forces that do not want this to happen, that want to benefit from the current state of sharp opposition between Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia.
- What is the outcome?
- The way out is wisdom!
Stefan Tafrov was born on February 11, 1958. He graduated from the 9th French Language High School in Sofia and journalism at the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". He worked for the newspapers ABV and Demokratsiya from 1989 to 1991. He was the head of the International Department of the Union of Democratic Forces and adviser to President Zhelyu Zhelev on foreign policy in 1990-1991. Until February 1992, he was the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Filip Dimitrov.
He was successively Bulgaria's Ambassador to Italy from April 1992 to January 1995, and Bulgaria's Ambassador to Great Britain from January 1995 to May 1997. From March to May 1997 he was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for the Accession of Bulgaria in NATO. From May to December 1997 he was the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, then from the beginning of 1998 to February 26, 2001, he was the Ambassador of Bulgaria to France and Permanent Representative of the Republic of Bulgaria to UNESCO. In March 2001 he became the first Bulgarian ambassador, holder of the highest degree - Commander of the Order of the Legion of Honor of France. He is also an Officer of the Order of the Italian Star.
He has twice been the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Nations. In 2021 he was a member of the 46th National Assembly, elected from the list of "Democratic Bulgaria" in Ruse.
He speaks French, English, Italian, Russian, and Polish.
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